For previous blog entries of our ride through NZ, Australia, South East Asia, China and Central Asia, click on the little arrows beside the dates in the Blog Archive below and use the scroll down menu.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

China - Yunnan Province - Mohan to Shangrila

Route: Mohan – Mengla – Jinghong - Simao - Pu'er - Jingdong - Nanjing - Dali- Lijiang - Tiger Leaping Gorge - Shangrila

Distance cycled: 16,518 kms

Sjirk and Ellen just through the Chinese border into Laos.

Camping on a rubbish dump just before the border, lumpiest camp spot so far

Cycling through the final checkpoint at Mohan, we realised we were finally in. Welcome to China. The guards had been a stern and miserable bunch that's for sure. Border crossings are such a laugh. What a long adventure we had ahead of us in this most fascinating of countries. It felt like a huge milestone to have reached this place,over 15,000 kms from our starting point in Auckland, NZ.

It was an easy ride to Mengla 45 kms away. It felt intoxicating to be here, so new and exciting.In Mengla we managed to order our first meal by pointing at someone else's dinner. Sadly, it was gross, an absolute greasefest. Not a good start.The food however has been amazing since then and so cheap.

Taking it easy for a couple of kms

We managed to find a payphone to call Chris and Liz who were a bit ahead of us. Getting information here requires a lot of effort and patience due to the language barrier and people often don't understand simple gesturing. We are using our Mandarin phrasebook a lot but the phonetic spellings in the book are useless and sound nothing like the correct pronunciation. Thankfully the sentences are written out in Chinese characters which we can just point to. The Chinese find it hilarious when you try to speak Mandarin. Can't blame them really, we must sound pretty ridiculous. When coming into restaurants etc, everyone has a good look. However, moments later, they're more interested in slurping up their noodles and chatting with their pals than what you're up to. Far less intrusive than S.E Asia.

It turned out that bikes weren't allowed on the highway between Mengla and Jinghong and we instead had to take the “old road”, the G213. Getting on to this road was a nightmare. No-one could help us find it and we got sent in all sorts of crazy directions, even back to Laos! Thank God for Chris and Liz. We called them on the phone of a passer-by and they got us on to the right road. It was late and we got 10 kms or so up the road before it was time to camp.

As we were cycling through Xishuangbanna nature reserve, fantastic camping options were plentiful. We found a great little spot just off the very quiet road, hoping no wild animals would find us. We were well hidden and spent a great night undisturbed watching a couple of episodes of Peep Show. The G213 was a fantastic road to cycle on. It was quiet as most vehicles use the highway and the scenery was spectacular. It was a tough ride to Jinghong, with hill after hill. The beautiful mountain scenery and fantastic downhills made it worth the effort though. We managed 100 kms that day and camped in an abandoned house at the side of the road. We were a bit put off by the presence of a couple of home made crack pipes and hoped that Sunday night wasn't crack night.

Anyone for crack?

It turned out that Sunday night wasn't crack night and we spent the night undisturbed. We got up at dawn and carried on the final 60 kms to Jinghong. The last section followed the Mekong, a river which has been with us since Cambodia.

Riding into Jinghong on the dustiest roads ever

In Jinghong, we met up with Chris and Liz and the 4 of us went to our first China couch surfing host. Ryan from Thailand agreed to put the 4 of us up in his small flat. Unfortunately all 4 of us got sick there and we renamed his house “Jinghong hospital”. Chris fared the worst and was poorly for 4 days. The rest of us had short bursts of sickness, diarrhoea and fever. It was an interesting start to our new-found friendship with Chris and Liz but pretty comical we all agree. Poor Ryan. He probably took himself straight off the Couch Surfing list as soon as we left! Seriously, what a great guy. His hospitality went beyond the call of duty as we all lay around groaning and clogging up his toilet. A huge thankyou to our most accomodating CS host yet.

Happily unaware that we'd be spewing this lot back up in half an hour. Bon appetit!

 In Jinghong we met French couple Sandrine and Damian. They had just cycled from the North West of China crossing the Tibetan plateau. They followed a road which runs right next to the Tibetan border for a real taste of Tibetan life. We want to take this route before the little of this sacred culture that's left is destroyed completely. They gave us a load of good information on this route which inspired us to go for it. We spent a great couple of days with them and went to The Frenchman-run Mekong cafe for Liz's birthday.

After 5 days we were discharged from Jinghong hospital and back on our bikes. We couldn't find the old road and had to illegally go on the motorway. It was a sketchy affair as we had to make our way through several dark tunnels up to two and a half kilometres long. We were desperate to get off but were trapped on there for 30 kms before we got to a toll gate. An army guy who we thought might give us a telling off, smiled and sent us on a little dirt track which led onto the old road. The ride got good after that, hilly but so quiet and very scenic.Today was Liz's real birthday and we found a great camp spot near a river under the motorway flyover. We got a roaring fire going and cooked Liz's birthday meal: sausage, mash and beans followed by chocolate cake.

Me on spud duty for the birthday mash

Next morning, we slept in till almost 10 o'clock. It was great having company, like a mini festival without the bands. It was reassuring to know that those two were sleeping next door to us. The ride was hilly as ever and we stopped after 60 kms. Almost every square inch of land here is used for agriculture.It's an amazing sight and not surprising in a country with 1.6 billion mouths to feed. This is a green and fertile country, bursting with life.We had trouble finding a camp spot that night and after 10 kms of searching down lanes and roaming in bushes we found a little spot just big enough for two tents down a little dirt track. That night Liz produced a bag of pasta and a huge tin of pasta sauce. It might not sound like much but was rather tasty.

Looking for the meaning of life....................

In a plastic cup?

Or in a toothbrush?

Well don't be silly
Before we came here some travellers told us how they had found the Chinese stern and unhelpful. We believed them up to a point until we came here ourselves. We have found the Chinese warm, helpful, sociable and completely sincere. Everyone is always so pleased to see us. We are made to feel like special guests in a country with many towns which see hardly any Westerners. One of the joys of cycle touring is that we get to stay in such places, places where everyone is interested in us. It seems that Westerners are considered important here and the Chinese want to give us the best impression of the country they can. Everyday we have wonderful interactions with the people we meet. Unlike in South East Asia where most people spend their time lying in hammocks(fair enough), the Chinese seem to spend most of their time toiling in the fields, knitting, weaving, cooking. They work damn hard. The Chinese have a strong identity and are proud to be Chinese. In Thailand however, skin whitening products are a multi-billion pound business, ever-growing as more and more Thais try to make themselves look like Westerners. Someone offered us a free tub of sun lotion containing whitening cream. I told them I was Scottish and not to be silly.

Wilson enjoying himself in China

A preying mantus enjoying himself

We spent the night with another Couch Surfing host. In the pleasant and very clean city of Simao, we were welcomed into the Green Bean English school by William Gao. At first we'd no idea what was happening as our bikes were inexplicably bundled into a spare room in the office of an advertising company. It was soon explained to us that we'd be sleeping in one of the English school's classrooms upstairs. We went up to meet the English teachers, a bunch of super-friendly 20 something girls who were shocked but delighted to see us. It was clearly a big deal to them to have English speakers visit the school and they whisked us out to practice their English over lunch. That night we went into a couple of classes to say hi to the kids. Teaching here is complete chaos and we found the noise almost unbearable. Everyone shouts: the teacher, the kids, people out in the corridor. It's nuts. The kids were great but I wondered how much they really learnt in such a crazy environment. We realised also how hard it is for these teachers to speak English well when they are never exposed to the language. Pronunciation is very tricky for them and the kids copy what the teacher says. It's no wonder China employs so many native English speakers every year to come and work in their schools.

Couch surfing in the Green Bean English school

Kevin - the first cyclist we met in China. started in Ireland 15 months ago

At 9pm we eventually got the classroom to ourselves as everyone left the building. We spent one more day in Simao and finally got to speak to out host William. It turned out that his non-English speaking father was the headmaster of the English school(only in China!). William was a lovely guy as was headmaster Gao who sent us off with his best wishes and a load of Pu'er green tea.

A fairly mild example of some of the precariously balanced heavy loads which pass us on a daily basis

High fives still coming thick and fast
For shits and giggles some friendly villagers try out the bikes

 Next day we cycled 50 kms up to Pu'er where we lunched on rice, tofu, brocolli and spare ribs. Eating is a big highlight of our day, a chance to rest, route plan and have a laugh whilst drinking copious amounts of green tea. The food here is something else and a bowl of noodle soup costs 30p. We seem to be charged the same as the Chinese wherever we go. It is only tourism which gives rise to the notion of ripping people off. The hills in Yunnan province are seemingly endless but as always the stunning views make the effort worthwhile. It is so beautiful here.

The Chinese can be very shy but when asking directions, if one man comes to help the rest will follow.

It took us a while to get off the extremely dusty G213 and on to the quieter road north to Zhenyuan. On this 100 km stretch we found a couple of little villages perfectly spaced for our food breaks. We were making good progress and starting to pick up the pace over the endless hills. In Zhenyuan we decided we'd earned a night in a hotel. In an effort to save money as always we managed to score a triple room for the 4 of us and the bikes for 40 yuen(4 pounds!), costing us a grand total of 1 pound per person. We stayed a second day in the less than exciting Zhenyuan. We seemed to be in the seedy end of town with all the brothels and were woken in the middle of the night by a loud drunken argument involving several men and some hysterical women, probably prostitutes. They were really pissing us of and Chris in his semi-slumber even dreamt he'd flung the window open and started screaming at them. We've been surprised to find so many brothels and hotels doubling up as brothels in Chinese towns. It makes no difference to us and everyone keeps themselves to themselves but it's not what I expected. As we sat eating our noodles in Zhenyuan, some locals gathered round us with their camera phones and took photos of each other with us. They were really chuffed. Next night Liz got asked to have her photo taken with someone's baby. It's hilarious.

One of my favourite campspots with great views of the misty mountains

Judy cycled from Devon to China

We cycled to the town of Jingdong the next day covering a respectable 80 kms. Jingdong was a much nicer town than Zhenyuan and we wished we'd taken our day off there instead. We arrived late and booked into another hotel. Once again, we got a 40 yuen room with two small double beds. This was a beautiful hotel with a pristine bedroom, spotless bathroom and perhaps the best shower of the whole trip. What a bargain, we love a cheap hotel. We ate in a super-friendly restaurant where carnivorous Chris and Liz enjoyed some buffalo stew. Having been a vegetarian most of my life I still often opt for the non-meat option but often no meat is not an option. Tofu is delicious and widely available. Arriving back at the hotel after dinner, a policeman was waiting for us. Foreigners have to be registered to stay in a hotel and some hotels won't take foreigners at all. It's ridiculous. All that paperwork for one night in a hotel. The young policeman was very friendly and was assisted by a young guy who worked in the hotel and spoke perfect English.After sitting around waiting for almost half an hour, our passports were handed back to us and we were free to go. However, not before we were given two boxes of Pu'er tea by the manageress. What a nice bunch, we'd only paid 4 quid to stay there and were treated like kings.

Passing time waiting on the policeman we accidently reenact the opening scene of "friends"

Hey boys, come and get it.

English-speaking Gerry cycled us out of town the next day and we made our way towards Hujie or Hujie think yer talkin tae as we kept calling it. We camped by a river that night slightly in view of the road above and a few houses. It was a nice spot though and a couple of dumper truck drivers who came past us just gave us a beaming smile and a thumbs up. It seems that if you make an effort to be nice to people here you'll get the same back. Maybe people who come away from China disliking it just aren't trying hard enough. We shall see.

That night was our coldest so far and Ben and I spent a chilly night in the tent. It was clear we needed some better gear before venturing too much further North. Cuddling helps but is no substitute for a decent sleeping bag. We remembered that night how horrible being cold is.

We arrived in the town of Nanjian the next day. Our fairly big climb was rewarded by an unexpected 20 km downhill into the town below. Chris and Liz treated us to a night in a hotel that night where we had one room per couple this time. We were delighted to find a bath, the first since Bali and and after it we cuddled up in one of our single beds together. We fell fast asleep at 8 o'clock and slept till morning. A mammoth sleep.

These guys van broke down and Ben tried to fix it. They gave us a big bag of tea.

Entering Nanjian
  After our customary noodle soup breakfast the next morning, we set off hoping to get to Dali 115 kms away. We made it to Weishan nearly 50 kms away before our first break. There we feasted upon mifan(rice) and some excellent chicken dishes. We ate loads, carbo-loading for the ride ahead. I eat faster than everyone else, hoovering food up like a dyson and have to make a real effort to control myself. The next part of the ride was a flat 40 kms on a valley floor where we covered ground quickly. We knew though from meeting another cyclist coming from Dali that a 17 km climb awaited us. We set off up the hill each of us riding at our own pace and thus riding alone for the whole climb. It was a slow climb which took a good couple of hours.

Night was falling as we reached the top and a feeling of loneliness came over me as I cycled in the fading light and bitterly cold night air. At the top it was freezing and I immediately layered up, donning just about every item of clothing I had in my panniers. When all four of us were at the top, we set off for the 10 km descent in the darkness into Xiaguan(Dali's new city). From Xiaguan it was an easy 13 kms to our final destination, the old town of Dali. We arrived tired, hungry and cold but happy to be there. Momo, our latest Couch Surfing host came to meet us in town and before long we were drifting off to sleep round at her house with food in our bellies and the bikes safely put to bed. As soon as I put my head on the pillow, I felt wonderful sleep take over. I'd been looking forward to this.

First snow on the mountains - Dali

The beautiful Momo
Renmin Road, Dali

In Asia, the men like to put their arms round each others shoulders

 Dali is an amazing hippie town, fairly unique to China. Sitting at 2000 metres it is a fairly chilly place set against a stunning backdrop of rugged mountains. There's so much going on in this small place and a real sense of community amongst the handful of Western travellers who end up here. It's more like a village than a town as we meet the same people almost every day and many travellers get stuck here for way longer than they intended. It's easy to see why. It's a town with bright colours everywhere, cobbled streets and quaint candlelit hippie shops on every corner. The 3 yuen(30p) vegetarian buffet is the best food bargain in town.

Having a wee sing song with Reishi and Ella in Xiaguan
Having had enough of noodle soup Chris gets a bit over excited about his pizza

Roel and Celine - cycled from Greece


Indeed it does
 When we arrived at Momo's, Couch Surfer Reishi told us about a Buddhist temple on the mountain where the monks taught Kung Fu. Ben has wanted to do something like this for a long time and 2 days later he packed his bag and left. We have spent every day and night together for the last 13 months and we knew a week apart would do us the world of good. We got some vague instructions on how to get there and I walked him to catch a jam-packed, rickety local bus bound for who knew where. This would take him some of the way and the rest he'd have to do on foot. As I looked at him through the bus window we shared a very special moment. He blew me a kiss and then was gone. The monks charged 300 yuen(30 pounds) for a week of Kung Fu training, meditation, accomodation and vegetarian food. Here's what Ben had to say about it:

Wu shi temple
 As it's winter not many foreigners are there. Luckily for me two guys turned up from Holland and Israel, Max and Edan who spoke very good English. My teacher was a twelve year old monk, Chang. Every morning we wandered down the mountain to get a rock. We balanced the rock on our heads and walked back to the temple for good posture and strength then ate breakfast.A half hour break was had by all, then the pain began, stretch, stretch, stretch, followed by a massage and intense stances. A fantastic lunch was prepared, tofu veg and rice. Then a four hour rest and back to training. A basic form was taught to me that took one week to learn. HIYYYA! All in all it was a great experience. There was lots of chanting that started at 5.30am every morning. I would do it again if I ever get the chance. Cheers lovely Margo for supporting me. xxxx.

I spent my week in Momo's freezing cold house where during that time several other Couch Surfers came and went. After a couple of days in Dali, Liz flew back to England for Christmas leaving Chris and I waiting for Benjarama. I enjoyed the week on my own, eating, wandering aimlessly around Dali and catching up on internet jobs. Momo loves meeting people and is extremely relaxed. We had a key and came and went as we pleased knowing we could stay as long as we liked. It was so nice to have a home for a while.

This confused guy probably had no idea the word printed on his jacket was even a country let alone why the hell I wanted my photo taken with him

You can get anything at Xiaguan market, even a tooth extraction

It was clear we had to splash some cash on proper gear for the Himalayas. Momo took us to an amazing second-hand market where we got down sleeping bags for under a tenner, a down jacket for Ben, fleece leggings and the like. For the stuff we couldn't get second hand we went to an outdoor shop in Dali buying 2 pairs of waterproof trousers, a goretex jacket for Ben, a down jacket for me,foam rollmats, hats, gloves and balaclavas. Post purchase we felt a little more confident about what we were about to embark upon.

Chris tests out the two down sleeping bag effect. Looks pretty cosy

10 Regal kingsize please
 The day before we were due to leave Dali, two very special people turned up at Momo's. Katya and Mirko have been travelling by bike, horse and other forms of transport since leaving Slovenia 8 years ago. We felt we were just getting to know this amazing couple after one day so decided to stay another two. They have a beautiful lifestyle, living simply and making a living through making and selling jewellery and doing fire shows. They made almost 200 yuen for a half hour show in Dali one night. The Chinese love to see what us crazy laowei are up to and were especially interested in this amazing dreadlocked pair. It seems that whether the throng of Chinese tourists enjoyed the show or not, they felt obliged to put money in the hat when it was put in front of them. Without going over the top, you don't meet people like Katya and Mirko very often. They certainly brightened up our lives and I'm sure the lives of everyone they meet.

Ben and Momo
Reishi played his didgeridoo for the fire show. Not sure what's going on here though.

We eventually escaped Dali and said our goodbyes to all the fantastic new friends we had made there. It had been amazing at Momo's. Her kind hospitality had brought so many people together. She is a fantastic woman who epitomises the spirit of Couch Surfing. Momo, I hope you achieve your dream to "travel like a gypsy by your crochet crafts". As we cycled away from Dali we ran into 4 cyclists who were heading there. As they were all Couch Surfers we phoned Momo and asked if we could send them round. There's always room at Momo's inn and she of course agreed!

7 cyclists stop for a roadside chat

Happy days. Bye bye Dali.

 It was good to be cycling again. We only managed 50 kms the first day and camped in an interesting lunar-like spot by the side of the highway. Chris slept out that night, was warm enough but woke up with a dewey sleeping bag. The driving was the worst we've seen so far and we had several near misses with drivers overtaking on blind corners. The Chinese don't have a clue how to drive.We set off the next morning for Lijiang 185 kms away with some big climbs inbetween. It was a good days cycling where each of us cycled on our own a lot. The landscape was stunning and mountainous as usual. We breaked after 35 kms and a lot of climbing and enjoyed a couple of rice dishes washed down with Coca Cola. It was afternoon and we decided we'd stop at about 80 kms. We carried on for another few hours and started to keep our eyes peeled for a camp spot from around 6pm, one hour before nightfall. However, it was one of those rare occasions when you just can't find anywhere. It was quite a busy area with loads of people milling around, surprising as wild camping in China has been fantastic. Before we could find anywhere we were right in the middle of a big town. Night was falling so we opted for a cheap hotel. I tried about 4 hotels and they were all extortionate, weird as in the past we could find a triple room for 40 yuen. In the end we managed to bargain a triple room down to 60 yuen. After dragging our bikes upstairs I was handed a bill for 100 yuen. I kept saying that we had agreed on 60 yuen and the owner started shouting at me and pointing at the bill which said 60 yuen plus 40 yuen. I'd no idea what this extra 40 yuen was for and he was extremely agro so we dragged our bikes downstairs again and left. As we cycled off in the darkness Chris said "Don't you think the extra 40 yuen was a key deposit?" Ah yes, most probably. I felt a bit bad for leaving as it was a misunderstanding on my part but didn't like him shouting at me so no love lost. We have now located the sentence in the phrasebook which says "Is this a deposit for the key?" for future reference.

And I thought I had a lot of stuff

Jade dragon mountain in the distance. Our first taste of things to come.

We put our lights on and got out the hi-viz vests for some night cycling. It's really hard finding a camp spot in the dark so your only option is usually right by the side of the road where you can vaguely see what you're doing. However as we cycled out of town I asked the boys if they were up for cycling the rest of the way to Lijiang where we had a Couch Surfing host to stay with. It seemed unlikely at the time being almost 50 kms away but 20 kms later we were still riding and had decided we'd be sleeping in Lijiang that night. We stopped for some noodle soup with 30 kms to go and phoned our host Kevin to see if he minded us turning up late. He sounded extremely easy-going and said it was no problem. Great. It so nice to have someone waiting for you, a house to go to instead of the uncertainty of not knowing where you'll sleep that night. We kept going, munching on rice crackers and Chris's not so secret stash of mini Snickers. With 20 kms to go we hit a fairly big climb which was the last thing we needed, worse as none of us had any idea how long the climb would go on for. We considered diving in a bush for the night but managed to keep going. Thankfully the climb wasn't to bad and on the other side a flat lamplit cycle path at the side of the highway took us into Lijiang. Night cycling can be a cold, sleep deprived, lonely affair but it's so nice to get to your destination.

We arrived at the Enjoy Inn where Kevin came to meet us. It was midnight. He showed us into our room and after a hot shower and some leftover dinner we went to bed and passed out within minutes. It had been a great ride and at 125 kms Chris had beaten his longest day.

I could dedicate a whole website to hilarious "Chinglish' translations

24 year old Kevin from Seattle helps to run the Enjoy Inn in Lijiang but has set a room aside for non-paying Couch Surfing members. Amazingly kind of him and his bosses as it is a hotel after all. We meant to spend only a couple of days but were still there almost a week later. Katya and Mirko had spent 10 days there before eventually making it to Momo's. Kevin is a cheerful, easy going guy who we got on so well with . We could see why Katya and Mirko had stayed there so long. Also, the Enjoy Inn is a super-chilled place where the balconies overlook the river and the gently swaying trees. We felt right at home there. On the second night there I joined Kevin and some of his pals for a night hike up Elephant Hill. Midnight seemed like an ambitious time to go hillwalking but at the top we sat in the silence and enjoyed a view of the whole town. Kevin gave me a hug and said "Welcome to Lijiang". I felt very welcome indeed.

We spent the rest of our time in Lijiang getting our blogs updated, wandering round the town's labyrinth of cobbled street and using the kitchen to make some home-cooked food for a change. I went to the local market, a hectic, vibrant, jam-packed place selling everything from fresh veg to dog carcasses. Indeed I was pretty surprised to see the grotesque sight of a half butchered pooch in amongst the chicken and pigs trotters. Despite what you may have heard, it is illegal to eat dog in China and even some of the Chinese were as surprised as me to see Rover on the slab. The meat market itself is something else. If you need any convincing to go veggie in Asia you should pay this place a visit. The hardy Chinese get on with it though unphased, chatting away cheerfully to each other as more blood spills on the floor. I bought myself a load of fresh vegetables and eggs. The lady I bought them from was so delighted that I'd got everything from her and kept throwing extras in my pannier for free. I filled my bag with peppers, potatoes, carrots, green beans, onions, sweet potatoes, brocolli and it only came to 2 pounds. It is so nice to be amongst such honest, decent, hard-working people and the simple and cheerful way they live their lives is inspiring. Despite the basket of dogs heads I loved the market. I went several times for a true taste of Chinese culture. Having access to a kitchen was great and I spent the rest of the week cooking nice meals. We had mashed potatoes and spanish omelette 3 times in a row!

At Kevin's, Lala and ginger puss were best of friends and always together.
  Lijiang is a UNESCO town meaning it has world heritage status. It is a very beautiful town comprising of cobbled winding alleyways lit up at night by the warm glow of red lanterns. The Rough Guide book described it as being "how people think China should look". That's probably true. Motor vehicles and even bicycles are banned from going through the streets of the Old Town making it a safe, stress-free place for everyone. It is however a tourist town and the number of Chinese tourists is phenomonal. Consequently prices are higher and it's hard to get a meal for less than 7 yuen. Comparing Dali to Lijiang, Dali has a better sense of community and seems more liveable but Lijiang is definetely the most picturesque of the two. We liked them both because of Momo and now Kevin. It's funny, thanks to Couch Surfing China has become a place where we have made a huge amount of friends and contacts. We really didn't imagine it that way and thought we'd just be getting our heads down and cycling without meeting too many people or doing much socialising. There's a great network of travellers here.

There's not so many Western tourists in Lijiang but Kevin took us to a bar run by an Irishman one night and we found where they'd all been hiding. This cosy little hideaway is a great little boozer with space cakes also on sale if Dali beer's not strong enough for you. Once again proving that it is indeed a small world, the first person we saw when we opened the door to the bar was Ben's friend from the temple in Dali, Max. That night as we were leaving the bar a huge fight broke out outside. This was particularly violent, involving several Chinese drunkards resulting in a river of blood flowing down the street. Well, this really isn't in keeping with Lijiang's world heritage status is it? The Chinese are not a violent race of people and although we have seen several drunken arguments, it's usually just a lot of handbags at dawn and raised voices so we were shocked to see such a spectacle in Lijiang of all places.

Lovely Kevin

Merry Christmas from Lijiang
Fruitella induced trance

We were still at Kevin's for Christmas and the 3 of us went to the market with Hong to buy a chicken. We made dinner for Kevin and his boss complete with roast spuds and stuffing. We also spent Christmas day and Christmas eve helping Kevin and his pal Keith with their new restaurant venture, working in exchange for white russians, mulled wine and gingerbread. We finally left Lijiang on the 27th.

Instead of taking the easy route to Shangrila(Zhongdian) 150 kms up the Highway, we opted for the longer route of 270 kms which would take us through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Our first days ride ended about 30 kms from the gorge where we camped on someone's land. It was a cold night and we woke in the morning to frost covered tents.

Arriving at the gorge we couldn't believe how beautiful it was. We climbed higher and higher looking into the deep gorge hundreds of metres below. It was an amazing sight and without a doubt the most beautiful place we've visited of the whole trip. It was a fair old slog through the 20 km long gorge but we didn't mind pedalling along slowly marvelling at the breathtaking sights. The road was in poor condition in many parts which wasn't so bad as it meant very little traffic. Every few kilometres a friendly gang of road workers cheered us on. As nightfall was approaching we realised it would be hard to camp in the gorge as for the most part, sheer cliffs dropped down on one side of us whilst overhanging rock towered above us on the other side. However, near the end of the gorge we noticed a flat plateau below us with a rocky path leading down to it. It was the perfect spot to camp and after a good feed and lying out underneath the stars for a while, we fell fast asleep and slept right through till morning. I woke up the next morning in the best of spirits looking forward to opening the tent door and taking in the amazing view.

If we thought the climbing in the gorge was tough, we were in for a shock. We climbed for hours the next day and after a late start in the morning only managed 20 kms. Every time you'd think you were at the top, you'd turn a corner to find another few hundred metres of climbing ahead of you. Relentless. The weather was getting bitterly cold and we always tried to camp at the bottom of a climb where it wasn't quite so cold. Tonight though we were pretty high up and after collecting some water for a stream for the nights tea and noodles we set up camp in scrubland at the side of the road. There were no shops out here only the occasional little shack in a village selling out of date instant noodles so it was up to us to collect and boil our own water for drinking. We had plenty of food with us and Chris made us yellow curry one night and nasi goreng the next. It was a bitterly cold night dropping below zero. We built a fire to sit at as we ate our meal. Next morning all our water was frozen and we realised we'd have to fill the kettle and pans with water at night, ready for defrosting on the stove or fire the next morning. However, the sun doesn't take too long to appear in the morning and it's always a welcome sight. The difference between day and night temperatures up here are considerable.

These cheeky gits made us dinner then asked for Chris's camera in return

We started first thing with a huge climb. The views below us were mindboggling and the landscape so vast. It was amazing to look miles across the mountainscape and see the ascending or descending ribbon of tarmac you would be reaching shortly only to look back and see the road you had just travelled disappear out of view. Climbs went on for around 20 kms at times as we traversed pass after pass. The downhills were the best ever and freewheeling down these steep mountain passes gave us a chance to sit back, relax and enjoy the views. By the end of the day, we were all done in and camped by the side of the road. We built a fire to boil off the stream water we had collected ready for drinking in the morning.

This friendly horse came to see us in the morning. We shared our oats with him.

This view suddenly made us realise how high up we were

 By now Ben and I were beginning to feel the altitude as we were now crossing passes over 3000 metres high. Chris seemed unaffected by it but the thin air had us both short of breath on and off the bike. Even bending down to put on a pair of trousers had us gasping. As for cycling, explosive bursts of power uphill are becoming out of the question. It occured to to us though that if you could adapt to the thin air and get the same cardio-vascular fitness you normally have, you could become extraordinarily fit when at normal altitude. It was only 82 kms to Shangrila that morning and we set out with every intention of arriving. Again, we spent hours slowly winding uphill. The rate at which we ticked the kms off was painfully slow but you have to get used to such slow progress climbing the foothills of the Himalayas.

Wilson freezing his teddy nuts off

After 50 kms we ran into a serious headwind which slowed us down to 4 kms/hour. It was no use, we'd have to do the last 30 kms to Shangrila in the morning. Chris found us a good camp spot tucked behind an embankment. We were worried about the tent holding up in the gale but in the end it was fine. We camped at 3600 metres that night and the cold was severe. In the morning we woke up to the first snows and packed up and left without breakfast for fear of getting stuck.

Prayer flags decorate the streets of Shangrila

The largest prayer wheel in the world

 As we cycled the last 30 kms we really began to feel like we had left China and entered Tibet. Buddhist prayer flags fluttered in the wind and houses were decorated with intricate, brightly coloured Tibetan artwork. Furthermore, the people had changed considerably since we started our China trip in south Yunnan. People had the narrow eyes and rosy red cheeks of the Tibetan people and were simply beautiful. The interesting thing about Tibet is that you don't have to go into the Tibet Autonomous Region to really be in Tibet. To enter the T.A.R you need to pay a lot of money for a guide as independent travel in the region is forbidden. Having said that, some people, especially cyclists still sneak in but it's becoming harder and more risky to do so. North Western Yunnan and Western Sichuan where we will be cycling are rich in Tibetan culture and the vast majority of people living here are Tibetan. The only difference is people outside the T.A.R are living much more freely than the repressed Tibetans living within the region. Enough said on that till we're out of China.

And so here we are in Shangrila, 3300 metres above sea level. As it is off-season here, the streets are often deserted and we have booked into a lovely Tibetan-run guesthouse. Chris is next door in a hostel. Ben spent all of last night taking his weight saving obsession to an unprecedented level by taking all the zips off  his clothes. When we leave here we head into the High Himalayas and despite our best efforts to equip ourselves with the right winter gear, we're starting to get a bit worried. The cold's no joke and with 5000 metre + passes to tackle over the next month before we reach Xining we have to take it seriously. If there is too much snow on the passes, it just can't be done. Our escape plan if it's too much for us is to head East down off the mountains towards Chengdu where we can head to Xining the long way round on the lowlands.Either way we're in for the coldest weather of our lives. From Xining we will head West through the Taklimakan desert on the Southern Silk Road before reaching Kashgar. At this point we either head into Pakistan or further North into Kyrgystan.

The seeming lack of logic and common sense here could drive you mad if you let it but it's an unavoidable part of travelling in this demented country. We are now used to the constant spitting all over the floor, the shouting and the queue jumping but sadly one thing that remains unforgiveable is the appalling treatment of dogs here. Dogs seem to spend their whole lives chained up, whining in desperation and underfed. Despite this we really love China and it's fascinating culture. The people have been so kind to us and we feel safe here. It's easy to  feel like aliens dropped  from a spaceship with our bikes at times, but most of the time we feel very welcome here.

Not according to plan, we must say goodbye to our good friend Chris here who we have spent the last 2 months with. Chris needs to wait on some parcels but our visa time is ticking away and we need to get a move on. The last 2 months cycling with Chris and Liz have been phenomonal and will always be a cherished part of our trip. We love you both. Be safe up there on your own mountain man, we know you'll be fine. See you for some fun in the Lakes when we get back.

And to everyone else, we wish you a happy, peaceful and productive New Year and leave you with the mother of all bad Chinglish translations. We found this at the front of a menu in a restaurant in Dali and nearly wet ourselves laughing.